Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Nov 2015

Statue known as the Augustus of Prima
Porta from the 1st century AD, in the
Vatican museums
The Villa of Augustus Caesar near Nola? 

(An earlier short item from 2008 is here. Many thanks to Jeff Miller for reminding me of this)

Some sources refer to the site as the “so-called Villa of Augustus”; another calls it the “Dionysiac Villa in Somma Vesuviana (aka Villa of Augustus)”, and so forth. So it is by no means a sure thing that this was the local residence of Augustus Caesar, the founder and first emperor of the Roman Empire. The sympathy vote says “yes”, but a number of researchers still hedge their bets with “let's keep digging and see what we find.”

They are working on what is called the "dark side"*note below of Vesuvius, the inside, the north slope; it is archaeologically little explored compared to the sections along the coast, such sites as Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis—the side that gets most of the fireworks. The site in question is at the bottom of the north slope of Vesuvius in the town of Somma Vesuviana, in a section of the town of Ottaviano called Starza Regina (marked in image, below, right), about 10 km/6 miles southwest of the city of Nola. The name Ottaviano reminds us that this was once a Roman latifundium, a very large estate (named Octavianum) of the Ottavii family. It is one of many such Roman estates in Italy, but this one holds particular historical interest because the family's most illustrious member, Gaius Octavius (later fast-frocked to Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus) died here or nearby. Sources are quite clear that Caesar Augustus died near Nola. As an old man (63 BC-14 AD), it is at least plausible that he died at home, according to ancient historians Tacitus and Suetonius, in this, his family villa near Nola, possibly in the same room as his father, Octavius, on 19 August 14 AD, having ruled since 27 BC.
Below, N is at the top. With the crater of Vesuvius as the center of a clock face, Starza Regina is at 12 o'clock, 6 km out. Pompeii was at 5, 9 km out, and Herculaneum was at 8, at water's edge, 7 km from the crater.

The location of the villa (no matter whose it was!) saved it from being destroyed in the famous eruption of 79 AD, which destroyed Herculaneum, Pompeii, Oplontis and other sites. As seen in the image (right), those doomed towns were all to the SE, S, SW and W of the volcano. The northern slope was not completely spared, but geological studies of pyroclastic strata at the Somma Vesuviana site indicate that the eruption of 79 AD, while depositing some volcanic material, did not bury the villa. That sad event did not occur until a series of eruptions finished the job, beginning in 472, virtually at the end of the Western Empire (Perotta 2006).

The term Somma is interesting. Most images of Vesuvius that one sees today can't help but emphasize the “saddle” in the middle of Vesuvius (such as the one in the logo at the top of this page). Today, the volcano is more precisely termed the Somma-Vesuvius volcanic complex, with Somma on the north side (on the left in that logo image) and Vesuvius on the south. That division, however, was put there by the eruption of 69 AD. Before that?...well, there are some reconstructions such as the one shown on the right (see image credits) but I'm not sure how much I trust them. (For example, it may be that the 19th-century artist responsible for the image heard the term somma and assumed that it must have meant the highest point on the rim of the volcano at one point, so that's the way he sketched it. Whatever the relative elevations were at various points around the rim when Augustus lived here didn't matter to him because
Vesuvius was not even regarded as an active volcanothe Greek historian and geographer, Strabo (64 BC-24 AD), wrote in his Geography:

Above these places rises Vesuvius, well cultivated and inhabited all round, except its top, which is for the most part level [emphasis added], and entirely barren, ashy to the view, displaying cavernous hollows and burnt rocks, which look as if they had been eaten in the fire; so that we may suppose this spot to have been a volcano formerly, with burning craters, now extinguished for want of fuel...
Roman writers generally called it Vesuvius or some obvious variation thereof. Greeks may have called it "summit" or "mountain" (local dialect sometimes still calls it the mountain! See this link.) As an alternative, then, to meaning "higher than others" in elevation, summa might be a metaphor—the villa summa, that is, the villa of the highest and most exalted emperor. As a matter of fact, the site under excavation is not even on the slopes, it's way down at the bottom where the land is flat enough to farm—by all accounts it was a vast vineyard dedicated to Dionysius, the god of wine. It was a good place to grow grapes. Speaking of “higher than others,” it is by no means clear how many neighboring villas were on Octavium or near it. On Capri, imperial interests had 12 villas, for example. Here, one thinks that there had to be more than just one residence. Research continues (see the first note, below).

The site was rediscovered by farmers in the 1930s. Some excavation turned up Roman columns, capitals, fragments of a statue, and colored stuccoes. Those fragments fit descriptions from ancient literary sources describing Augustus' death, and the site was interpreted as the last residence of the first Emperor of Rome. Mussolini lost interest in further excavation and others things intervened—such as WWII. Bombings around Vesuvius destroyed much of what had been excavated earlier, and real excavation did not begin again until 2002 as part of a multidisciplinary project by the University of Tokyo. The rooms excavated so far are impressive (again, no matter whose villa it was). The largest room has a colonnade on one side, two walls with niches, an arcade with pilasters, and three doorways decorated with Dionysiac motifs. There are other rooms richly decorated with frescoes, mosaics and statuary (some of which is now contained in the archaeological museum of Nola). The villa was terraced and had stair access to each terrace. There were cisterns, food storage areas and wine cellars.

I'm not sure why this item has been in the news a bit recently, since there don't seem to be any new breakthroughs at the digs. It can only have to do with the fact that Italy is just coming off a one-year commemoration of the 2,000th “deathday” of Augustus (19 August 14 AD), including museum displays in most cities, including Naples (“Augustus in Campania" ran from December 14, 2014 to May 2015). Some reports on the villa got their facts wrong, such as calling the villa at Somma Veseuviana the emperor's “final resting place”. Even if he died in that villa, the procession that then bore the mortal remains of the emperor from Somma Vesuviana to Rome for entombment in his own mausoleum, his “final resting place” (which you may visit even today) is well documented. It was a big deal.

sources, notes, bibliography

*note on "dark side" of Vesuvius (para.2): See this external link for the Apolline Project, promoting itself as "a multi-disciplinary research project investigating the northern ‘dark’ side of Vesuvius – the ancient territories of Nola and Neapolis. Fields of study include archaeology, volcanology and paleobotany..."  ^up

see this external link for Excavations in Somma Vesuviana (NA), a site providing "Prompt Photo Reports on the Progress of the Archaeological Excavation."

Angrisani, M. La villa augustea in Somma Vesuviana, Aversa 1936.
D’Avino, R.  La reale villa di Augusto in Somma Vesuviana, Napoli 1979.
Della Corte, Matteo.“Studies on Vesuvius' north slope and the Bay of Naples,” in  Appoline Project vol 1: Quaderni della Ricerche Scientifica, ed. De Simone, Girolamo F.  and Roger T. MacFarlane. Suor Orsola University & Brigham Young University, 2009.  
De Simone, Antonio. “Augustus in his last visit to Campania, Capri and Apragopolis: Octavianum and Summa Villa” in Quaderni del Centro Studi Magna Grecia 10, University Frederick II, Naples. Naus Editoria, 2010, Pozzuoli.
The Dionysiac Villa in Somma Vesuviana (aka Villa of Augustus)    accessed Nov.1 2015.
Perrotta, Antonio et al. “Burial of Emperor Augustus' villa at Somma Vesuviana (Italy) by post-79 AD Vesuvius eruptions and reworked (lahars and stream flow) deposits” in Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, Volume 158, 2006.

images: top left, villasomma blogspot; top right, Till Niermann, Wikipedia; engraving from
Rambles in Naples, An Archaeological and Historical Guide by S. Russel Forbes, T. Nelson and Sons, 1893; bottom left, Apolline project.

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